Category Archives: memoir

Debris

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Pulsing underneath, always, the vein of creativity begging to be tapped. But some days it runs so deep, there is too much excavation needed to get there. There have been many of these days lately.

photo credit: thewritingvein.com

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I hate/heart NYC

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She’s always prepared to hate New York City. It’s such a loud, impatient place, and everyone’s always honking their horn, willfully cultivating an age-old cliché. The cars here have their own language, a street smart, uninhibited idiom that vehicle counterparts in other cities never learned. Taxi drivers pump their gas pedals at red lights, the modern day equivalent of rev’ing an engine, inching forward as if it somehow gives them an edge, satisfying a need for perpetual motion. In the cab she picks up at JFK, a TV screen comes on automatically in the backseat, CNN competing with the view of Queens flying by.

There’s so much to dislike. People throw their garbage onto the curb in this city. Right there on the sidewalk, where you have to smell it and step around it. C’mon, that’s gross. Really? It would be one thing if the sidewalks were deserted and no one had to look at it, but the reality is that the sidewalks vibrate with constant foot traffic, busy people talking animatedly on their cell phones, stepping carefully around the plastic bags of refuse in their expensive (or inexpensively fashionable) shoes. Crowds of people get jostled at street corners, vying for a front position so that they, like the cabs, can sustain a forward motion. They don’t even wait for the light to turn green. She’s always surprised one of those fast moving, honking taxis doesn’t slam into some oblivious New Yorker or tourist who goes walking calmly out into the street against the red light, right in front of her. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Everything is so jam packed together. That the sun finds its way around those tall buildings and onto any given street is kind of amazing. All those weary, dirty, graffiti-clad buildings with rusty stairs on the outside, like worn bones on the wrong side of skin. They seem completely disinterested in the sun and its daily arc. Even the newer, sleeker, glass buildings designed to celebrate the light end up reflecting it back to the sky, not so much down to the sidewalks.

Maybe its just disorientation. The way Manhattan seems to reject it’s natural surroundings always throws her at first. Unlike the city she calls home, the buildings here seem to turn their backs on the organic channel around them, keeping the population inwardly-oriented. As the city swallows you, it can be hard to believe there are real tidal straits just blocks away, with currents strong enough to carry a swimmer out into the Atlantic Ocean. Only the ferries and bridges, with their unarguable contributions of motion and architecture, are given a grudging nod for their value, accessories to the larger ensemble. The straits are shockingly polluted, but they continue to offer transportation, commerce, recreation, and visual relief to the city, resigned to their fate, perhaps as she is. Maybe she feels snubbed at first too, as NYC doesn’t so much welcome you as it deigns to grant you access.

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Despite all this, New York City always manages to settle under her suburban West Coast skin. Within the first 24 hours, noises start to blend into the background, becoming almost musical, communicating useful information, like the time of day, streets she should visit, and events worthy of further exploration.

One of her taxi drivers is originally from India. He has lived here for 18 years and once lived in her hometown, and he is excited when she admits where she is from. She has to lean forward to understand him well, but this just proves to him that she is interested. Instantly, they are friends and he knows that she has two children and a husband who owns his own business, and that her mom was a social worker and her dad worked for the telephone company. He is momentarily distressed that they divorced when she was young, although she tries to get him to see that this was a good thing. He mutters and shakes his head, in a hell-in-a-handbasket kind of way, lamenting the divorce rate in America. Even if she doesn’t share his perspective, it’s nice to know his traditions are alive and well. (It also amuses her that he keeps checking his reflection in the rearview mirror, as if validating his wisdom, and maybe his good looks.)

Once she’s adjusted to the city, her senses are bombarded in a good way. Thousands of smells are embedded in a street that is never still long enough to be washed. Her attention, at first drawn to the stains on the sidewalk that might be bodily emissions, quickly turns to fascination with the superbly fashionable but understated French women walking in front of her, talking in their sensual, fluid language. Their voices are beautiful, and their conversation includes the English names of restaurants, galleries, and other recognizable points of interest.

Men unload an unidentifiable shipment into a warehouse next door to her hotel, maneuvering around the ferns and other floral trimmings poking out of plastic garbage bags at the curb. A perfect dahlia the color of a city sunset lies where it fell on the sidewalk, and she hesitates, wanting to pick it up. A flower shop owner is momentarily curious, pouring water out of pots and surveying the patch of sidewalk he’s just swept. A subway rushes past under her feet, the sound rumbling up from the vents at the curb. Already, she feels alive in a way she is not at home. She notices that though she is the only American white person in the vicinity, she does not stick out like a sore thumb. It’s as if here race is less important than the vibrancy of your skin, and how well you wear it.

She stands at the 9/11 memorial, and it touches her the way it is meant to. Gaping holes in the ground that are perpetually weeping, sucking tears down into a channel she cannot see into or follow. The significance couldn’t possibly be lost on anyone, anymore than the names that are grouped by proximity and relationship, rather than alphabetically, and engraved on a ledge she can trace slowly with her fingers.

Counter to initial impressions, nature is alive and well here, asserting itself in surprising places. She walks in Central Park on a Saturday, when the greens and pathways are filled with people, graceful elms, and sky, all adapting to autumn. She finds it in park-like ambiance along the High Line, and in the one-acre Battery Urban Farm in the financial district. She marvels at the clouds above the Manhattan skyline from the Staten Island ferry and feels a kinship with not only her fellow riders, but the aspirations of the people who make up the businesses that build those towering buildings that almost reach them. The Statue of Liberty is amused by her awakening, a re-enactment that would seemingly get old when you’re planted on an island in the middle of a harbor. The city’s architecture and art are as enchanting from the water as they are from the interior streets, as is the wind on her face and yes, the sunlight on her skin.

Within the first 24 hours, she realizes she is in love with New York City again.

photo credit: ek2014

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Cliché in the city

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She is in the big city, alone. She finds a popular bar on 7th Ave, one with a crush of young people just off work and ordering Bud Light in bottles. She lays claim to one bar stool, because there is always one solitary bar stool available in a crowd, even in the busiest of bars. This is a universal truth. Some folks think the world shuts out single people, but she actually believes it reserves spaces for them, single spaces that groups are reluctant to fill. 

She orders a Stella and a burger. The Australian tourists next to her are watching the Billy Joel concert on the TV above them. John Mayer is playing guitar, his eyes closed. The bartender takes care of her, with a charming Irish accent and one eye constantly scanning the crowd, anticipating the next order, collecting payment, trying not to drip beer on her sleeve. Thanks, he says with a practiced grin, over and over again, money exchanging hands over her shoulder. Excuse me, his customers apologize to her, as if they are interrupting.

She’s here because she can’t be alone in her hotel room. It’s the silence and the spaces that unnerve her. It’s knowing that Drew is out there somewhere, between the posts, behind the friends they have in common, beyond her barricade, but not unreachable.

Maybe it’s knowing she’s getting too old to be this cliché. Maybe it’s that she’s reached the age at which she feels invisible to anyone who doesn’t know her, who didn’t once truly know her.

This must get easier at some point. 

She gets up quietly, smiles at the bartender, and heads back to the hotel.

photo credit: ek2014

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Secret space

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When you consider that she was the one who imagined it, and that she could have created any number of comfortable, plush, or natural settings, it’s the strangest room. There’s a narrow corridor with a window at the end, and she’s always hurrying down it, toward the last door on the right, as if someone is chasing her or someone might see her. When she enters, she quickly closes the door and locks it.

All of the furniture is along one wall. There’s an old brown couch, maybe leather, though she’s not sure if it’s genuine or some kind of vinyl imitation. It’s cool to the touch, not particularly inviting. Butting up next to the arm of the couch is a black metal, four-drawer filing cabinet that never opens. She thinks it might be empty. Sometimes there is a small, high window, opposite the couch. Other times, the room is windowless. It’s always quiet.

This secret space is where she used to go to be alone in her head. It was meant to be a safe zone, where she could slow her breath and still her mind and visualize the future. Later, this was where she went when she wanted to talk with Drew. This is where honest and soulful things were said, things that were deceptively simple, that still resonate.

The room feels hollow now, without his voice to welcome her, without the intensity of those conversations to give the room warmth and texture. She still goes, leaning with her back against the door to make sure no one followed, listening for him, to see if he has missed it too and come back.

How can he not feel her heart breaking?

She desperately needs a new door to open, but the corridor is quiet.

photo credit: http://homeguides.sfgate.com/

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Tremors

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The hotel room was dark when she returned from dinner, and for a moment she stood still, to see what it felt like to be alone and quiet. It came immediately, as always, sadness rolling over her like the fog she had watched from 10,000 feet a day earlier, great drifts of cottony cover, settling heavily over the coastal mountains.

Her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She kicked off her shoes and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels, immune to the news and the drama. What she wanted was an unconditional conversation with Drew. In lieu of that, a good cry. Instead, she opted for a beer and M&Ms from the front desk. She went to bed with her contacts in, face unwashed, clothes dropped carelessly on the chair, pajamas in her suitcase, ignored.

At 3:20am, the world began to roll. In her dream, she was floating on waves, the rhythm insistent and unrelenting, forcing her to relinquish power, to relax her grip, to give in to something larger than herself. But the groaning building woke her, its protest low and mechanical. She gripped the sheets as the bed undulated, and in the darkness, she felt as if she were in the hull of a boat, adrift in large waves, insignificant and powerless. After a moment, the waves rolled away, moving on, the undulation getting softer and softer until it was gone. The hotel walls were once again quiet.

Wide awake, heart pounding, she thought about a tsunami. She wondered if more waves were coming. She wondered if her sorrow might be tangible, strong enough to liquify the earth and roll her away.

photo credit: http://farm9.static.flickr.com/

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Teaching love

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What is she teaching them? What will they grow up to believe about love and happiness?

On one hand, they never see her kissing their dad. They never see her touch him voluntarily, and sometimes they notice that she has a hard time maintaining eye contact with him. They see that she can be patient and kind. But they also see that she can be tense and distant. Selfish even. Lately, her oldest daughter pauses on pictures of them together, studying the photographs and wanting her to look at them too. The puzzle pieces don’t all fit together, but she does not say the words aloud.

On the other hand, both parents are there. The girls have a home they know and love, and they never fear that they will go without a meal, or a parent to tuck them in at night. Someone is always coming home. Everything looks the way it looks at other people’s houses. Their parents sleep in the same room, they share the money, and they both do the household chores. They are united, usually, in decisions that involve them and sometimes they do seem to like each other. They still take trips together, and they still go out with their friends. On the surface, it all looks normal. So maybe it is.

But the girls are smart. Maybe smarter than she is. Do they understand longing and regret? Do they know what it means to be restless? Does staying teach them resilience and commitment and partnership? How will they learn about passion?

More and more, she wonders what she is teaching herself about love.

 

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Balance

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The fan revolved slowly in the wrong direction. Others along the veranda turned at a clip, stirring the air, but this one didn’t. She didn’t mind. The breeze off the gulf was warm, and it lifted her hair from her forehead.

The view from their table was of the marina. She watched as a sailboat went out, a skipper at the helm, one passenger sitting quietly at the bow as the boat turned toward the bay, others laughing and sipping drinks in the cockpit. Another boat was motoring back in, the first mate moving carefully along the starboard side, throwing fenders out over the railing. Two pelicans flew in formation overhead, as if mimicking the fighter jets that live at the nearby base.

They ordered the mahi tacos and happy hour beers. Neither said much, content to sit side-by-side, relaxing in their anonymity and the stillness. Sweat from their glasses pooled on the table, soaking their coasters as they ate. She smiled at the child who walked by waving the crayons she’d secured from the waiter. He ordered another beer.

After a while, he leaned back against the bench. She sat back too and leaned into him, feeling the softness of his shirt sleeve and the warmth of his arm under it.  She felt him exhale.

She began to keep count. For every sailboat that went out, another came in.

 

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